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December 16, 2009

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Bingo! Baghdad's elite social club is back

AFTER years of bombings and killings, Baghdad's 85-year-old elite social club is making a comeback - with an open bar, deafening Arabic pop music and Saturday night bingo games that draw hundreds of fun-seekers. Rebecca Santana reports.

It's Saturday night at the Alwiyah Club, and 21-year-old Sarah al-Kimackchy is doing the hip thing - playing bingo.

The streets outside may still not be as safe as they once were, and the occasional deadly bombing still rips through Baghdad, but al-Kimackchy is here with her family and entirely fixated on her game, wondering if tonight will finally be her night.

"Since I was a young girl, I've played bingo and even till today, I've never won!" she says.

After years of bombings and killings, Baghdad's 85-year-old elite social club is making a comeback - and there's no better evidence than the open bar, the deafening Arabic pop music and the Saturday night bingo games that draw hundreds of fun-seekers, from teenagers to grandparents.

While it is only a small snapshot of Iraq, bingo mania reflects the growing sense of security in Baghdad and the resurgence of a community that wants no part of the religious divisions that almost destroyed the city.

Founded when Iraq was ruled by Britain, the Alwiyah's lawns, tennis courts, swimming pool and bar were long the gathering place of the cultural, political and intellectual elite - those who met the membership criteria of a college degree and knowledge of a foreign language.

It continued to thrive under Saddam Hussein until the early 1990s. Also, many women stopped coming to the Alwiyah for fear of the sexual predators.

"It became like a military club. No drinking. No parties. What kind of club is that?" says Abdul Rahman Hamza, a 45-year-old lawyer whose family were among the founding members.

After the 2003 US-led invasion, the Alwiyah started rebuilding itself, says Kadam Mokdady, vice president of the club. But most of its members had fled the country, and of those who stayed, many were afraid to leave their homes for fear of bombings or killings.

By nightfall the club would empty. A nearby explosion cracked the pool.

To attract new members, the college and language requirements were dropped, Mokdady says. Physicians, university professors and engineers were replaced by Iraq's newly rich, who made their fortunes during the fighting - and off it.

Many of them wanted their bodyguards to accompany them into the club, but other members rebelled and the bodyguards stayed out.

The turning point was 2008, when violence in Iraq dropped dramatically. The Alwiyah came alive again.

On bingo night, the parking lot is packed, pop music blasts over the lawn, and the atmosphere is decidedly secular. While women on Baghdad's streets usually cover their hair, here young women in blue jeans and snug-fitting blouses mingle with the men. Alcohol is served in the bar.

A large outdoor bingo screen is lit up and a man calls out the numbers and letters. Individuals pay about US$4 for a wooden table on which they can play bingo all night. Prizes are small amounts of cash.

"The girls outside wearing trousers and tank tops - you wouldn't see it before," says Mokdady, gesturing to the lawn. "It was very limited ... It wasn't really a family club as such until 2008. Since then, it has become almost back to normal."

The pool has been fixed and "Shipwreck Parties" - which entail getting thrown into the water fully clothed - are on again. Mokdady says the club plans to add a bowling alley, gymnasium and cafeteria.

The club has about 4,000 members. A family pays a one-time fee of about a million Iraqi dinars - roughly US$850 - and then 100,000-150,000 dinars (US$85-US$100) a year, Mokdady says.

The Alwiyah is doing so well that it has reinstated the college and foreign-language requirement and is planning to weed out undesirables who got in during the lean times, Mokdady says.

The night ends with al-Kimackchy, the bingo-lover, still out of luck. But nowadays confidence in the future means everyone expects to be back next Saturday, and the next.

"Let's hope it will stay like this," says Samar Edward Hana, a 60-year-old civil servant in a dapper suit and tie who has been a member 25 years. "And all the families will return from abroad."


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